Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Winter in the Woods

Good morning Weathercock.  How did you fare last night?
Did the cold wind bite you and did you face up to the fright
when the leaves spin from October
and whip around your tail?
Did you shake from the blast and did you shiver through the gale?
                          ~ Ian Anderson, Weathercock, performed by Jethro Tull

Yellow-poplars, black locusts, and red maples, among others, ring the field, their naked branches a network of black capillaries against the winter sky.  A few solitary sycamores grace the arboreal gathering, standing bright white against this dark background.  In recent weeks the sycamores shed their leaves; they spent their summer shedding a layer of bark.  A curious phenomenon this exfoliating of bark, as yet unexplained.  Competing hypotheses range from a means of shrugging off parasites to allowing the continued production of carbohydrates after the loss of leaves.  (Patterson Clark, The Sycamore:  Tall, Pale, and Thin-Skinned, an Urban Jungle column that ran on December 1, 2011, in the Washington Post.)

Beyond the field are woodlands.  This is Sligo Creek Park which stretches for miles beside a creek that runs through suburban areas in the Maryland counties that border Washington, D.C.  A couple of weeks ago I came across a flyer published by the Friends of Sligo Creek, the volunteer organization that advocates for this park.  The flyer describes how the denizens of these woods and fields will cope with the rigors of the coming winter’s cold.

My favorite portrayal of animals in winter is pure fantasy conjured up by Kenneth Grahame and appearing in the third and fourth chapters of The Wind in the Willows, chapters titled, respectively, The Wild Wood, and Mr. Badger.  They recount Mole’s impulsive journey one winter afternoon into the Wild Wood seeking to make the acquaintance of the Badger.  Mole has tried to get Water Rat to arrange an introduction, “[b]ut whenever the Mole mentioned his wish to the Water Rat he always found himself put off.  ‘It’s all right,’ the Rat would say.  ‘Badger’ll turn up some day or other – he’s always turning up – and then I’ll introduce you.  The best of fellows!  But you must not only take him as you find him, but when you find him.’”

During the winter, the Water Rat (a vole, actually) spends much of time sleeping or drowsing before the fire or, on occasion, composing poetry.  Mole, on the other hand, apparently remains more active as the days shorten and the temperatures fall.  So, that fateful afternoon, Mole sets forth in search of Badger, leaving his friend napping or “trying over rhymes that wouldn’t fit.”  After entering the Wild Wood, Mole becomes frightfully lost and experiences the Terror of the Wild Wood.  At home, Rat, discovering Mole gone along with his new goloshes (a nice touch), knows immediately what his friend is about, and strapping on a pair of pistols and grabbing a “stout cudgel” sets out to the rescue.  Though he finds the terrified Mole, their escape from the Wild Wood goes wrong as night descends accompanied by a fierce snow storm.

As they struggle through the snow, Mole trips over something in the deep snow and cuts his leg.  Rat and Mole engage in a lovely verbal exchange about what kind of object may have caused this injury, capped by Rat’s growing exasperation at Mole’s inability to see the meaning in the finding of a door-scraper and then a door-mat buried in the snow.  This is Kenneth Grahame paying homage to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes (Rat) and Doctor Watson (Mole).  (Annie Gauger explores this connection to Sherlock Holmes in The Annotated Wind in the Willows, 2007, p. 68-69.)
“Do – you – mean – to – say,” cried the excited Rat, “that this door-mat doesn’t tell you anything?”
“Really, Rat,” said the Mole quite pettishly, “I think we’ve had enough of this folly.  Who ever heard of a door-mat telling any one anything?  They simply don’t do it.  They are not that sort at all.  Door-mats know their place.”
Of course, once they dig into the snow bank, they find themselves at Badger’s door and manage to roust him apparently just as he was about to retire.  He, like the Water Rat, is passing his winter with much sleep.

It’s here at Badger’s home, in the cheery kitchen they enter off the “long, gloomy, and to tell the truth, decidedly shabby passage” that Grahame’s story captures so perfectly the joy of being safe, fed, and warm during the winter.
When supper was really finished at last, and each animal felt that his skin was now as tight as was decently safe, and that by this time he didn’t care a hang for anybody or anything, they gathered round the glowing embers of the great wood fire, and thought how jolly it was to be sitting up so late, and so independent, and so full; and after they had chatted for a time about things in general, the Badger said heartily, “Now then! tell us the news from your part of the world.  How’s old Toad going on?”
Ah, even the thought of Toad, whose misadventures form the core of the book, cannot diminish my pleasure at these three animals resting easily while the snow falls on the ground above them.

So how do animals actually deal with winter?  According to the flyer from the Friends of Sligo Creek, the responses are a creative mélange.  Some insulate their bodies against the cold by fluffing feathers, adding layers of fat, or growing thicker coats.  Some share body warmth by snuggling together.  Others pick up the pace of their activities, the increased activity generating warmth, while others slow things down, lowering their metabolic rates significantly (among the mammals in Sligo Creek Park, only the groundhog actually goes into the deep sleep of hibernation).  Of course, some just pick up and go, migrating to more appealing climes.

But of all of the methods that these animals have evolved, one depresses me, touching me like a cold hand on my spine.  The birds who stay and face the onslaught of winter deal with the cold primarily by shivering.

Surely not shivering.  At first, I could only deny the accuracy of this claim.  Rapid muscle contraction just didn’t seem a possible, reasonable long-term means of heat generation (thermogenesis) in response to low temperatures.  But the research literature says otherwise.  Most birds are homeotherms, that is, they seek to maintain a constant body temperature, regardless of the ambient temperature.  George C. West, University of Alaska, Fairbanks, professor emeritus of zoophysiology, in one of his early research articles on bird physiology wrote:
In winter in the north during the daylight hours, birds move about in search of food and general muscular activity produces sufficient heat to maintain body temperature.  However, at times of inactivity during the day or especially at night when birds are inactive, increased muscle tone and shivering appear to be the only methods available for producing heat.  (Shivering and Heat Production in Wild Birds, Physiological Zoölogy, April, 1965, p. 111)
Forty-six years later, this article continues to be a foundation piece in research on thermogenesis in birds.  For instance, José Eduardo P.W. Bicudo, et al., assert in their review of the literature (Thermogenesis in Birds, Bioscience Reports, April 2001), “Birds meet the bulk of their increased thermogenic needs in response to cold stress with shivering thermogenesis” (p. 182)  Their source for this statement is West’s 1965 article.

So, on those dark winter nights, as I pile another quilt on the bed and encourage the dog to curl up with the masters of the house, my pleasure is tempered with a bit of guilt that the avian inhabitants of the dark woodland shiver the night away.  Indeed, to the questions Ian Anderson asks of the metal weathercock, the living counterparts answer, Yes.
Did you shake from the blast and did you shiver through the gale?

Monday, December 12, 2011

Waiting in the Wings for a Long Time

The block of rock sits on a table in the lab that the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History has positioned in the public exhibit area.  This lab (the so-called FossiLab), with its glass windows on two sides, offers visitors a view of trained volunteers preparing some of the museum’s fossils for study and display.  From the block of rock in the lab, two converging rows of broad, glistening grey teeth have partially emerged, exposed by the rapid, targeted blows of an air scribe (think little jackhammer capable of being controlled with precision).

According to the small sign that has been propped up against it, this is the upper jaw of a Brontotherium, a rhinoceros-like herbivore related to horses that lived some 40 million years ago.  On display elsewhere in the museum is the full skeleton of a Brontotherium hatcheri, showing the massive jaws of the animal and the distinctive horn ornamentation on its snout.  The fossil in the lab seems to be missing its horns.

A small drawing accompanying the display shows how the head might have appeared in life.

But that information on the sign isn’t what really registered with me; rather, what caught my attention was the name of the collector – John Bell Hatcher, a man who occupies a special place in my clutch of paleontological heroes.  This ungainly block of matrix seems to connect more vividly to the man himself than do any of his other finds on display in the museum.  (The image below appeared in the American Geologist (March 1905), accompanying Hatcher's obituary.)

Hatcher was a risk-taking adventurer in the classic mode, and, above all, a consummate fossil hunter.  He was one of the country’s greatest fossil hunters during the last two decades of the 19th century, and was coming into his own as a professional paleontologist in the academic science world when his life was cut short by typhoid fever in 1904 at age 42.  Perhaps it is surprising that he lived so long given how often he seemed to take his life into his own hands out in the field.

While a student at Yale University’s Sheffield Scientific School, Hatcher fell under the sway of Yale paleontologist Othniel Charles Marsh and immediately upon graduation in 1884 began collecting at a torrid pace.  (At this juncture, it appeared Marsh had vanquished Edward Drinker Cope in the so-called dinosaur wars, a subject covered in a previous posting.)  During the summer of 1884, Hatcher apprenticed with commercial fossil collector Charles H. Sternberg in Kansas, but whether his preternatural skill at finding fossils was so obvious or he grew frustrated with what he considered Sternberg’s carelessness, after a month Hatcher was collecting on his own.

Over the next decade, he collected for Marsh throughout the west.  Spectacular find followed spectacular find, and trains carried boxcars filled with his fossils east to New Haven.  Hatcher’s success only fueled Marsh’s insistence that he stay in the field.  Particularly noteworthy were the Brontotherium fossils that Hatcher sent Marsh in 1886 and 1887 from the Western Nebraska Badlands, and the Ceratopsidae (“horned dinosaurs”) he subsequently found in Wyoming.  In fact, Hatcher’s name may be most often associated with the latter, particularly the Triceratops.  He found the first of these dinosaurs in 1889, and many more followed over the course of the next four years.  A brief foray, at Marsh’s instigation, in the winter of 1887 – 1888 to the Cretaceous formations in Maryland set the foundation for all future work on dinosaurs in this area.  (This was touched on in a recent posting on dinosaurs in Maryland.)

In 1893, Hatcher severed his ties with Yale, frustrated by Marsh’s unwillingness to let his assistants publish in their own names and aware that Marsh’s financial resources were drying up after Cope’s counterattack deprived Marsh of the position of chief paleontologist of the U.S. Geological Survey.  (As part of the fallout, many of the fossils collected by Hatcher for Marsh were claimed by the U.S. Government for the Smithsonian.  Presumably the Brontotherium jaw being prepped in the FossiLab was one of those fossils that worked their way from New Haven to Washington, D.C.)

Hatcher became curator of vertebrate paleontology at Princeton University.  While at Princeton, between 1896 and 1899, he undertook three fossil collecting expeditions to Patagonia (southern Chile and Argentina).  At the turn of the century, Hatcher assumed the position of curator of paleontology and osteology in the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh.

To capture the full flavor of the man, one need only read Hatcher’s account of his three Patagonian expeditions.  His Narrative of the Expeditions often reads as a Victorian era adventure novel, one still waiting to be made into a movie.  I can hear and see him laugh when told what he proposes to do is foolhardy.  He mounts his horse and rides out, right into disaster, perhaps the one about which he was forewarned or something else.  He comes through it, often much the worse for wear, but alive and eager to do it all again.  (John Bell Hatcher, Narrative of the Expeditions, Geography of Southern Patagonia, Volume I of the Reports of the Princeton University Expeditions to Patagonia, 1896 – 1899 (1903))

On the first expedition, Hatcher arrived in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in March, the start of the winter in the southern hemisphere.  Advised to put off his quest for fossils until spring, with some counseling him that no man could survive being out in the field during the winter, he shrugged it all off.
[W]e had tented it for many years on the wind-swept plains of Wyoming, Montana, and the Dakotas, often with the thermometer far below zero, and had no uneasiness as to our ability to survive successfully whatever blizzard Patagonia might have in store for us.
Apparently not until the second expedition, which began at the end of 1897 and lasted until the middle of September, 1898, did Hatcher feel the full force of a Patagonian winter, but then it unleashed its full fury.  His misery was compounded by a sustained attack of “rheumatism” which laid him up in the field for some six weeks.  (It’s not clear to me what he was actually suffering from, but often over the years his joints would swell and become extremely painful.)  At the end of June, when he was finally able to stand again, he and his sole companion began the 500 mile ride to Gallegos.  For over a month, “we dragged slowly through fields of snow and ice, shovelling away the snow each night over an area sufficient to accommodate our beds.  We were frequently hard pressed to find grass sufficient for our horses, . . . .”

Some 125 miles from Gallegos, Argentina, Hatcher struck out alone with five horses, the other member of this expedition having decided that he’d had enough.  The heavy rain that marked the early part of the day of his departure changed to driving snow as the temperature fell.  By ten o’clock that night when he finally reached a ranch, the area was in the grip of a full-throated blizzard.  For two days he waited it out.  Then, despite pleas that he stay put, Hatcher went on.  Though his rheumatism caused him great agony mounting and dismounting, the only way to traverse some of the sheer ice sheets he came upon was to lead the horses himself on foot.  At the end of five days he finally reached a ranch in North Gallegos with but a single horse, the other four fatigued animals having been abandoned in the ice and snow.

The single event that reveals to me the courage of the man occurred during his first expedition.  Hatcher could be counted on to find prodigious quantities of fossils and this expedition was no exception.  In October, 1896, he and his sole assistant arranged for the shipment of over four tons of fossils to Punta Arenas, Chile.  (This was the second shipment to go out and would be dwarfed by the third shipment that came a bit later.)  From Punta Arenas, this shipment would be transferred to a ship heading to New York; Hatcher decided that he needed to oversee the transfer in person, so he began the 225 mile ride to Punta Arenas on horseback alone.

The family at the ranch he reached his first night out in Killik Aike (part of the Welsh community in this part of Patagonia) pleaded with him to take more than a single horse for the rest of his trip.  He dismissed this advice, observing that he often made trips of 500 to 1,000 miles in the U.S. on just one horse.  Though the family was right to be worried and Hatcher ultimately did have to purchase a new horse to complete the trip, the lack of a second horse was not what nearly cost him his life.

During the afternoon of the third day on the trail, Hatcher dismounted to stretch his legs and allow his horse to eat and drink.  When he came to saddle up again, he saw that the horse had looped one hoof through the reins.  Hatcher stooped and released the hoof, but as he did so, something startled the animal who jerked his head down just as Hatcher started to rise.  A broken shank on the bit sliced into his scalp “in such a manner as to loosen the latter over a considerable area, at the same time rupturing some of the blood vessels and causing the wound to bleed very profusely.”  Hatcher’s efforts failed to stem the bleeding and so he continued on his way, blood pouring down his chest and saturating his clothes.  He traveled  for awhile in that condition but feeling faint (finally . . . I felt faint just reading the account) he dismounted, unsaddled and picketed his horse, and lay down, but not before wrapping the wound with two handkerchiefs and ramming his hat down over his head to hold the cloth in place.  Only late that night did the bleeding stop.  The next day he started out again, arriving at a ranch by mid morning, only to be told to move on by a cook, the only man not out working the ranch.  Hatcher tried to reason with him but, failing that, simply pushed his way past and commandeered food and coffee, and washed his wound and dressed it.  He then mounted up and was back on his way.

Still on the trail, his head wound became infected and he came down with a heavy, lingering cold.  On reaching Punta Arenas, he consulted with one of the two doctors in town who recommended that he be “bled.”  “I was not long in deciding that I would be my own physician and surgeon, well knowing that since the first night on the pampa after my accident I had been in no way suffering form an excess of blood.”

Hatcher engaged fully in the hunt for fossils whatever the physical cost, a reflection of his attitude about the best way to study and understand natural history.  In his account of the Patagonian expeditions, he spelled this out in a single, nearly stream of consciousness, run-on sentence:
The study of nature is always instructive and interesting, even inspiring and impressive, if the student be a real lover of nature seeking for truth at first hand and for truth’s sake, and not merely a fireside naturalist, who seldom, goes beyond his private study or dooryard, and either contents himself, like other parasites, with what is brought to him, like a bird of prey forcibly seizes upon the choicest morsels of his confreres, with little or no consideration for the rights of wishes of those who have brought together the material at so great expense of time and labor.
Like other parasites!!  What a caustic comment.  Though I read this passage as a bitter thrust at O.C. Marsh (who died in 1899), that reflects only part of Hatcher's complicated relationship with Marsh.  Regardless of how his relationship with Marsh ended, Hatcher acknowledged the pivotal role his late mentor had played in his life.  He dedicated the Narrative of the Expeditions to “The Memory of Othniel Charles Marsh:  Student and Lover of Nature.”

Beyond the fact that J.B. Hatcher was the collector of the Brontotherium jaw being prepped at the National Museum of Natural History, something else struck me about this fossil.  Assuming it was found and sent to Marsh in 1886 or 1887 from the Nebraska Badlands, only now, some 125 years later is this specimen being prepared for study and perhaps display.

This century and a quarter is insignificant in terms of the millions of years that span the time from the death of the animal to its discovery by Hatcher, but its significance cannot be gainsaid on the human scale of time.  Perhaps it’s not a great tragedy that Hatcher never saw this particular fossil cleared of its matrix; clearly, there are tons of fossils he never saw prepped.  Indeed, of the material Hatcher shipped to Marsh from the Brontotherium Beds, Yale paleontologist Charles Schuchert commented in 1905 on the sheer volume collected, writing, “It will be many years before all these collections are worked out.”  ([Obituary of] John Bell Hatcher, The American Geologist, March, 1905.)

Waiting in the wings.  That’s the image I have of myriad unprepped and unidentified fossils sitting in storage in museums around the world.  This is no criticism of the museums because I know this work takes money, time, and skilled people, and I can only imagine how short museums must be on all three.

While working on Hatcher’s background for this posting this past week, I happened to come across a fascinating posting  (December 6, 2011) in Science 2.0 on the identification of a new Ceratopsidae dinosaur species.  Given the long wait I’d discovered for Hatcher’s Brontotherium fossil, the title of the Science 2.0 article was an effective hook:  Spinops Sternbergorum - Horned Dinosaur Discovery 100 Years in the Making.  The scientific article formally identifying the new species appears in the current issue (Volume 56, Issue 4, 2011) of Acta Palaeontologica Polonica and is titled A New Centrosaurine from the Late Cretaceous of Alberta, Canada, and the Evolution of Parietal Ornamentation in Horned Dinosaurs (Andrew A. Farke, et al.).

This is another story of a long wait in the wings, in this case of nearly a century.  These fossils upon which the new species identification is based were found in 1916 by two collectors working in Alberta, Canada, on behalf of the British Museum (the Natural History Museum, London).  Though the collectors believed this to be important material, the Keeper of Geology at the Museum thought otherwise, using the word “rubbish” in one description of it.  “Consequently, most of the material remained overlooked and unprepared for over 90 years.”  (Farke, p. 693)  Though I’m not sure what prompted a shifting of the spotlight to this material, it apparently was worth it.  S. sternbergorum, a not too distant relative of Triceratops, potentially offers new insight into the evolution of the spikes on animal’s neck frill.

The collectors of these fossils?  The new species name tells the story – a couple of members of the so-called Sternberg dynasty of collectors.  In this case, Charles H. Sternberg and one of his sons, Levi.  Yes, the same Charles H. Sternberg who briefly oversaw the field work in Kansas of the young John Bell Hatcher.

Additional Sources

Other materials on Hatcher that were useful in the preparation of this posting include:

George F. Eaton, Obituary [of John Bell Hatcher], The American Journal of Science (August 1904).

Tom Rea, Bone Wars:  The Excavation and Celebrity of Andrew Carnegie’s Dinosaur  (2001).

O.C. Marsh and E.D. Cope:  A Rivalry, American Experience.

Two generations of the Sternberg family commercially collected fossils, establishing a most productive fossil hunting dynasty.  Interesting material on Charles H. Sternberg and others in his family appear in:

John Acorn, Deep Alberta:  Fossil Facts and Dinosaur Digs (2007).

Detailed profiles appear on Mike Everhart’s website Oceans of Kansas, including one of Charles H. Sternberg.

Mike Everhart, Sea Monsters:  Prehistorical Creatures of the Deep (2007).

Charles H. Sternberg, The Life of a Fossil Hunter (1909).

Wednesday, November 30, 2011


A couple of weeks ago, I offhandedly added a small brachiopod specimen to my fossil collection, picking it up as a raffle prize at a fossil club meeting.  The tag associated with it gave its scientific name as well as the location where it was found – Eichwaldia reticulata; Silurian brachiopod; Waldron Formation; Flat Rock, Indiana.  (The Silurian Period was from 444 to 416 million years ago.)  Frankly, I often don’t accept at face value the labels that other collectors apply to such fossils and so I typically end up doing some research on them.  In this instance, as is frequently the case, the impulse was the right one; the tag was wrong as to genus name.  Since 1994, it’s been Eodictyonella, and wasn’t Eichwaldia after the late 1890s when Dictyonella was generally accepted.  (Anthony D. Wright, Eodictyonella, a New Name for Dictyonella Hall, 1868, Not Dictyonella Schmidt, 1868, Journal of Paleontology, July 1994)

Brachiopods in general have seen much better days.  The few extant species of these marine organisms are the remnants of a vast array of species that widely populated the oceans until the mass extinction at the end of the Permian (251 million years ago).  Though they look like mollusks with two valves, they are not, constituting their own phylum.  Brachiopods were once so abundant that it’s common to find slabs of shale imprinted with shells in such huge numbers that the distinctive symmetrical patterns of individual shells are superimposed one upon another in a riotous array.  The picture below shows such a spread of fossils from the Devonian (416 to 359 million years ago) in a chunk of shale found on a mountain roadcut in West Virginia.

After unpacking the mystery of the name of this little Silurian fossil (a cast, I believe, of the exterior of both valves), the next step was to put it into a drawer with a label and be done with it.  The picture below shows the fossil along side a penny for scale; the brachiopod is ½ inch in length.  Not much to look at.

But fossils almost invariably reward a closer look.  Prompted by descriptions in the literature on Eodictyonella, I took a jeweler’s loupe to the fossil and discovered the marvelous exterior ornamentation that species in this genus exhibit.  Macro photographs of both sides of the fossil show these patterns.

I found the fossil’s geometric array of intersecting arcs, clearly evident despite the wear and tear of over 400 million years, spellbinding.  The arcs appear to originate on either side of where the two valves come together in a point, the brachiopod’s beak or umbo.  The cells in the grid pattern appear to expand and contract depending upon the contour of the surface of the brachiopod, particularly as edges are reached.

The grid cells or pits in the network pattern on the Eodictyonella brachiopod contain one or more small openings or puncta which, according to Anthony Wright, connect to pores that open on the inner shell surface.  Wright cites research suggesting that the pits in the shells may have been part of a defensive network against predators seeking to drill through the shells.  Each of the openings in the shell may have contained organic caeca or sacks which held some form of organic material which, based on evidence from extant brachiopods, may “be beneficial in that punctate shells are less bored by predators, suggesting that caecal secretion inhibited penetration . . . .”  (Anthony D. Wright, The External Surface of Dictyonella and of Other Pitted Brachiopods, Paleontology, Volume 24, Part 3, 1981, p. 475)

The network pattern on the Eodictyonella is startlingly familiar, reminiscent of what one sees in the double spiral patterns of plant leaf or floret arrangements (phyllotaxis) such as in the picture below of the head of a sunflower (Helianthus).  The two systems of spiral arcs flow in opposite directions.

I’ve always felt that these double spiral patterns in plants offer a glimpse into a profound, underlying natural order.  When the leaves or florets in phyllotaxis patterns are numbered from youngest to oldest and displayed on a two-dimensional surface, adjacent leaves or florets along each of the systems of arcs have the same numerical relationship to one another (e.g., along one arc, leaf or floret numbers may differ by five, and by eight along an arc flowing in the opposite direction).  For each plant species, its pair of phyllotaxis numbers (for the two systems of swirls) has been found to be adjacent pairs in the Fibonacci sequence, that sequence of numbers in which the last entry is the sum of the two previous entries (0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, . . . .).  The sequence was first laid out in the 13th century by Italian mathematician Leonardo of Pisa.  The connection to the Fibonacci sequence isn’t some mathematical magic, some mystery.  Rather, as science writer Philip Ball explains, the connection flows naturally because this arrangement provides for the most efficient packing together of leaves or florets.  (Ball, The Self-Made Tapestry:  Pattern Formation in Nature, 1999, p. 106 – 107)  Do I understand why this is so?  To be honest, not yet.  So, maybe it does remain a bit mysterious to me.

Although something similar may not be playing out in all of the external ornamentation of Eodictyonella, partly because the surface over which the pattern appears differs markedly from those involving plant leaves or florets, in certain areas the impulse may be the same.  Wright describes the pattern as an “apparently complex network of variably rhombohedral to hexagonal pits” arising from “simple radial growth modified by the inevitable geometrical results of closer packing of the pits,” as well as changes in the pace at which shell material is deposited along the growing edge of the shell and waves in the growing edge.  (p. 475, emphasis added)

In The Self-Made Tapestry, Ball argues that evolution cannot contravene certain fundamental forces, physical or chemical, as it shapes life.  As a consequence, he posits, similar forms and patterns may repeatedly appear in living organisms, as well as elsewhere in nature.  I wonder if the similarity between the phyllotaxis patterns and those appearing on the Eodictyonella may reflect such a constraint.  Ball writes,
 There are . . . forces guiding appearances that run deeper than those that govern life.  (p. 4)

Source of Photographs

All of these photographs are mine except for the one of the sunflower.  That photograph is by L. Shyamal and is reproduced here under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic License.  It is found at Wikimedia Commons.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Contagion of Interests ~ A Case of Trilobite Arches

Interests can be insidiously contagious.  Though you may contract only a mild version of the enthusiasm that grips the person who initially exposed you, the damage has been done.  This posting is a cautionary tale.

Recently, my sister and her husband returned from a vacation in Venice with tales of architectural marvels, including trilobite arches.  They were certain this term would excite my paleontological persona, prompting an immediate mental connection with trilobites, those extinct arthropods of the class Trilobita.  With references on these arches from one of their guides to the city, Venice from the Ground Up (2008) written by James H.S. McGregor, chair of the Department of Comparative Literature at the University of Georgia, they launched me on several days of research, the drafting of this posting, and descent into . . . .

A bit of context may be in order.  Though these folks are not paleontology fanatics, some time ago I infected them with just enough of my passion for the science that they now go out of their way for something fossil related.  A case in point – during an Adirondacks sojourn, they stopped by Leeds, New York, so they could walk the town’s bridge, constructed of Becraft Limestone, a wonderfully fossiliferous Devonian stone replete with such treasures as crinoid stems, gastropods, and trilobites.

To the arches.  McGregor uses the term trilobite arch in describing aspects of the Basilica di San Marco (St. Mark’s Basilica) and the Ca’ d’Oro (House of Gold) on the Canal Grande, with particular attention to the latter.  He writes that the Ca’ d’Oro features trilobite arches in the loggias on the western façade’s first and second floors.  (The numbering of the floors is tricky, a ground floor sits at the canal’s edge.  A loggia is a covered gallery, open on one or more sides.)

To establish what I’m focused on here, below is my rendition of a trilobite arch drawn from those on the second floor of the western façade.  (I drafted it using Inkscape, an open-source vector graphic editor.)

Among the defining elements of this Gothic arch is not the outer edge (the extrado), which in this case is simply pointed, but rather the inner one (the intrado) which is divided into three spaces by two distinct protrusions on either side.

The full western façade of the Ca’ d’Oro is pictured below.  (The image, taken by Didier Descouens, is reproduced under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License, and appears at:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Ca%27_d%27Oro_facciata.jpg .)

McGregor describes this façade as follows:
Springing from two pilasters and supported on five columns, a complex tracery of stone distinguishes the first story.  The lowest area of the tracery is a series of trilobite arches, with frames that are steep and doubly curved and inner circumferences lightly marked with the outline of three partly overlapping circles.  In the open areas between each of these adjacent arches, the stone tracery outlines four-lobed openings.  The tracery comes to a point above each of these openings to form small trilobite spaces. . . .
The arcaded opening on the floor above is a more compact and delicate version of the one below.  Five shorter columns and two pilasters support six trilobite arches that terminate in a much simpler and more distinctly geometrical tracery above.  (p. 119-120, emphasis added)
I love that the “small trilobite spaces” he describes on the first floor (and, for that matter, those on the second floor) are upside down.

In fact, this kind of arch (right side up) appears widely in Venice.  For instance, Basilica di San Marco is replete with them.  The picture below of the southern doorway at San Marco shows a wonderful set of these arches framing the windows above the doors.  A separate photo focuses on the arches.

With these images in mind, I asserted that this term –  trilobite arch – applied to the delicately flowing structures on the Ca’ d’Oro façade made perfect paleontological sense.  Whoever named this arch, I believed, could only have been doing so with some knowledge of fossil trilobites.

I didn’t mean the connection was as simple as there are three divisions in each – the arch has three lobed spaces and the arthropod trilobite had three body lobes.  Rather, it was in the arrangement of those three lobes that the name made sense and here a bit of specific paleontological knowledge came into play.

Most people upon first encountering a fossil trilobite conclude that it is so-named because it has three stacked body parts dividing the animal from the head down to the tail – into cephalon, thorax, and pygidium.  The photo below of an Elrathia kingii (1 inch long) has been annotated to show those three divisions.

But that would be incorrect.  Further, that arrangement wouldn’t match the trilobite arch.  In point of fact, the names Trilobita and trilobite as applied to this extinct animal derive from the three lobes into which the body is divided longitudinally with these structures running the length of the body, two pleural lobes straddling a central axial lobe.  (Among other publications that discuss this source of the names is Trilobites by Riccardo Levi-Setti, 1993, p. 8.)

The longitudinal aspect of the lobes signaled to me a clear bond between trilobite arch and the trilobite arthropods.  With an open space typically extending down from the trilobite arch, one is presented with a structure whose name architecturally and paleontologically makes sense.

Only the connection is an illusion, it’s purely serendipity and the product of my paleontology delirium.  In my enthusiasm, I’d seen a connection between Venetian architecture and these fossil animals which is purely a coincidental, misguided product of a consuming interest.

Perhaps McGregor simply needed a different adjective with which to describe these three-lobed arches; he may well pronounce the word trilobite with an accent on the second syllable (tri-LO-bite).  Yes, the term trilobite arch is used elsewhere by others but very seldom.  A Google search came up mostly empty.  I realized that I’d seen intent where there wasn’t any, a point driven home when I found that, as far as I can tell, architect and renowned historian of Venetian architecture Richard J Goy in his book on the construction of the house (House of Gold:  Building a Palace in Medieval Venice (1992)) never once uses the term trilobite arch.

I’ve concluded that this kind of arch is perhaps most often labeled a trefoil arch.  (I should admit that Goy in the passage on page 145 of his book providing a succinct description of the western façade only uses the term trefoil arch a single time.)  From Oxford Art Online (available by subscription) comes this definition of a trefoil arch:
A triple arch composed of three sections of a circle, arranged scallop-fashion, the central being the highest.  It may be pointed or round.
In his American Architecture:  An Illustrated Encyclopedia (2002), the late Cyril M. Harris defines a trefoil arch as follows:
A pointed arch whose inner surface is struck from three centers; the shape of the arch is determined by the position of the centers and radii of curvature; has a projecting cusp on each side.  (p. 338)
(Harris was professor of architecture and professor of electrical engineering at Columbia University.)

Use of the term trefoil arch appears to have deep roots.  Among the older material I turned up is The Principles of Gothic Ecclesiastical Architecture:  With an Explanation of Technical Terms, and Centenary of Ancient Terms (1849) by Matthew Holbeche Bloxam (1805 – 1888).  Bloxam worked professionally as a lawyer in his hometown of Rugby, England, and was widely known for his archaeological research and writing, particularly on Gothic architecture.  (An obituary appeared in the Journal of the British Archaeological Association, Volume 44, 1888.)  In The Principles of Gothic Ecclesiastical Architecture, Bloxam illustrates several variations of the trefoil arch.  One of his illustrations appears below.

The second arch in the second row and two arches in the bottom row are identified as variations of trefoil arches.

(Bloxam also figures in the historical scrum over the origins of the sport of rugby, but going there would be too much of a digression.)

With that, I bring this cautionary tale to a close, though with one small coda.  I now find myself awash in arches, acutely aware of what had previously remained mostly hidden in the background.  I play with terms such as trefoil and ogee arches, blind and containing arches, intrados and extrados, Gothic and Romanesque.  Trefoil arches make appearances in unexpected places such as New York City's Central Park with its Trefoil Arch.  Perhaps a visit to a natural history museum would help with my recovery, as long as I ignore the architecture of the building.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Poetic Pursuit in the Museum: Seamus Heaney and Bogland

Twilight at the museum, though, to be honest, it’s always twilight in much of this building, never night when, as we well know, the specimens on display would come alive.  The visitors are departing, leaving in their wake faint pulses of voices and fading fragments of sentences.

On a quest, I peer into one hallway – early and middle Cenozoic mammals – too early.  The Ice Age and beyond is to my left – much more promising.  In the soft gloom, I pass a giant sloth, round a corner and stop.  As though from a mist, rises Megaloceros giganteus, the Irish Elk.

What an amazing creature, seemingly a victim of size gone wrong.  During a brief warm period, some 12,000 to 11,000 years ago, the Irish Elk bulked up and grew those monstrous antlers, spanning upwards of 12 feet and weighing 100 pounds.  But, as Stephen Jay Gould described, the animal, neither an elk (it was a deer) nor exclusively Irish (fossil remnants are found throughout Eurasia), was a battleground over which Darwinians and their naysayers long fought.  The latter at times contending that an attribute such as those grossly huge antlers showed the impotence of natural selection, once an animal started down an evolutionary path, there was no turning back even if it lead directly to the animal’s extinction.  Though the former have won this field, they remain somewhat at odds among themselves over the forces actually at work in driving up body and antler size.

Gould, in his essay The Misnamed, Mistreated, and Misunderstood Irish Elk (in the essay collection Ever Since Darwin (1977)) offered evidence for the allometric relationship between body size and antlers (as the one increased so did the other), and concluded that selection was working on the antlers.  As selection drove an increase in antler size, body size increased along with them.  He proffered that the oversized antlers were used in ritualized combat between Irish Elk males, a process that established dominance hierarchies without inflicting fatal injuries on the vanquished, and, most importantly, ensured the reproductive success of the more robustly antlered victors.  Others argued that the key was body size and it was the antlers that were along for the ride.  The plaque below the skeleton of M. giganteus here in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History posits just that.  Extinction, Gould argued, came when the climate cooled and the flora changed with it, no longer able to support these animals.  The plaque cites as the principal cause of the beast’s extinction the impossibility of moving with their racks through the forests that arose with the changing climate.  Some have offered up a more convincing hypothesis, arguing that the nutritional requirements for animals of this size with their array of antlers could not be met by the newly available flora, and that it changed too quickly for the animals to adapt, all the while sexual selection continued to promote larger antlers. (Ron A. Moen, et al., Antler Growth and Extinction of the Irish Elk, Evolutionary Ecology Research, 1999.)  Regardless of the precise cause of the extinction, Gould concluded that all this was fully in keeping with the theory:
Darwinian evolution decrees that no animals shall actively develop a harmful structure, but it offers no guarantee that useful structures will continue to be adaptive in changed circumstances.  (p. 90)
So why my quest for the Irish Elk?  It grew out of my reading Bogland, a poem by Seamus Heaney, 1995 Nobel Laureate in Literature (awarded "for works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past").  (Bogland was published in a 1969 collection titled Door into the Dark.  I am reading it in Opened Ground:  Selected Poems 1966 – 1996.)

I come late to Heaney’s poetry and have been reading mostly his earliest pieces, those that most center on the ebb and flow of rural life in Ireland and the Irish landscape.  Here a spongy, porous boundary separates past and present.  In this bogland of Ireland, this watery earth, the past is just below the surface and seemingly unchanged.  In Bogland, Heaney writes of butter buried for a hundred years reemerging “salty and white.”  And ancient trees that turn not to coal, but to “waterlogged trunks/ . . . , soft as pulp.”  In the harvesting of peat, the past is present – “Our pioneers keep striking/ Inwards and downwards,/ Every layer they strip /Seems camped on before.”

And my quest?  “They’ve taken the skeleton/ Of the Great Irish Elk/ Out of the peat, set it up,/ An astounding crate full of air.”

A striking and true image of the ribcage?  I think so.

But I am puzzled why it’s the ribcage the poet remarks on, not the massive set of antlers.  Perhaps it’s just a striking image, though I think not with this poet.  A comment on the meaning of the past?  On an effort to recreate it?

Bog-mediated preservation of the past recurs often in Heaney’s early poems.  For example, in a series of poems, including The Tollund Man, he finds a resonance between the violent troubles in his home land (Northern Ireland) and the well preserved bodies found in bogs in Denmark, victims of sacrifice 2,000 years ago.  (William Doreski, Diggings, Harvard Review, Spring 1996.)

The first of Heaney’s poems I read was Death of a Naturalist from the 1966 collection of the same name.  (Heaney was featured in a recent installment of the PBS NewsHour’s Poetry Series; the text of the poem and a video of Heaney reading it appear on the NewsHour’s website.)  The poem offers an almost maddening array of stimulations for the senses.  It demands to be read aloud and savored.  Every spring, the narrator, Heaney as a boy, I assume, gathered frogs’ eggs (“frogspawn”) in jars and watched them develop on window sills at home and shelves at school.  And, as the poem reads, every spring his teacher, Miss Walls, told the children of daddy frogs and mammy frogs.  To mark the boy’s youthfulness, the first portion of the poem ends with a delightful non sequitur about how the color of the frogs changes depending upon the weather – the prototypical young child telling all he knows about a subject, whether relevant or not.

That innocence vanishes in the second portion of the poem when the boy comes upon a gathering of croaking bullfrog – “Poised like mud grenades, their blunt heads farting.”  The would be naturalist?  “I sickened, turned, and ran.  The great slime kings/ Were gathered there for vengeance and I knew/ That if I dipped my hand the spawn would clutch it.”  Death of a naturalist.  Actually, I think not.

I am still working on this poem, considering if it’s about the death of sexual innocence (though why at that particular moment when Miss Walls had told him often about mammy and daddy frogs), if it marks the moment of the boy’s realization of the potential dangers of the natural world, if there’s some Irish folktale about vengeful frog kings, or if . . . .  Regardless, I do not, for a moment, believe that it describes the death of the naturalist in Heaney.  His poetry says otherwise.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Lost in Scientific Translation

“What’s this fish doing in my ear?”
“It’s translating for you.  It’s a Babel fish.  Look it up in the book if you like.”
          ~ Douglas Adams, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
The united intellect of my family has vainly tried to make it out. – I never tried such confoundedly hard German: nor does it seem worth the labour.
        ~ Charles Darwin to geologist Charles Lyell, February 18, 1860, regarding Heinrich Georg Bronn’s published review of The Origin of Species

I’d never really considered the challenges of translating scientific terms and concepts across language barriers until recently when, on occasion, I’ve had to use my once fluent Spanish to talk about fossils.  I don’t have the vocabulary for it.  My Spanish, acquired as a child and teen, rests on a vocabulary built for navigating social interactions among my then youthful peers and for travel through urban environments in Latin America; it’s not really adequate verbal equipment for describing fossils, and clearly laughable as a means for translating terms used in English to explain something like evolutionary theory.

This isn’t a trivial issue actually and the more I’ve thought and read about it, the more appreciation I should have for translation when it’s done well . . . but how would I know if it’s being done well?  Aye, there’s the rub.  (Try translating that into another language.)

As science historian Sander Gliboff observes, modern scholarship on the process of translating a text from one language to another now considers the “translators and interpreters as authors in their own right.”  (H.G. Bronn, Ernst Haeckel, and the Origins of German Darwinism:  A Study in Translation and Transformation (2008), p. 12, cited below as H.G. Bronn, I’ve only had access to the Introduction to this book.)  The consequences of this process for a scientific text are fascinating, because the properties of translation may render scientific theories as “historical entities that change through time and across national boundaries.”  (H.G. Bronn, p. 13)

A recent fossil hunt in a suburban Maryland stream took me up to the door to the maze of scientific translation, and the discovery of two small fossil shark teeth caught in my screen in the stream opened the door and I stepped in.

I believe the teeth are from Serratolamna serrata (Agassiz 1843), a Late Cretaceous mackerel shark (some 70 to 65 million years old, Severn Formation).  Views of the lingual and labial sides of the teeth appear below.  (Sources I consulted for the identification are provided in the Notes at the end of this posting.)

The scientific names of extinct and extant animals should easily navigate across language barriers, though deciphering the name and the taxonomic history behind a scientific name can still be blocked by language-related obstacles.  According to the scientific name Serratolamna serrata (Agassiz 1843), the shark was first formally identified in 1843 by naturalist Louis Agassiz (1807 – 1873), but the parentheses state that some portion of the original name, or all of it, was changed one or more times in the ensuing more than a century and a half.  Too often I take those parentheses as a dare to attempt a reconstruction of the taxonomic history of the named fossil; this was one of those times.

Given the date associated with the name, Agassiz’s original name for the shark had to have been published in his multivolume Recherches sur les Poissons Fossiles (Research on Fossil Fishes).  Agassiz published separate volumes (“atlases”) containing the plates illustrating the fish fossils described in the five volumes of text – one atlas per volume of text.  Scanning the atlas for Volume 3 (featuring sharks) uncovered the following two drawings by artist Joseph Dinkel which dovetail nicely with my stream finds.

The name associated with these two drawings?  Otodus serratus.  Here’s Agassiz’s description of O. serratus, translated crudely from French:
The distinguishing characteristic of this species is that the side cusplets, usually more or less rounded in other species, are here transformed into angular serrations, especially at the base of the posterior edge.  In this regard our 0. serratus brings itself a bit closer to Galeocerdo, so I'm not without some doubt about the generic position of this species, which cannot be determined in a rigorous manner until we study its microscopic structure.  If the result of this shows that the dentine is not as massive as that of the Otodus, but on the contrary is rather hollow, you should not hesitate to refer it to the genus Galeocerdo.  Meanwhile, it seemed to me that its external form has more to do with that of Otodus.
The originals of my figures are in the collection of Mr. Bronn, and come from Mount St Pierre de Maestricht, and both are seen by their outer surface [labial side? – hard to tell from Dinkel’s drawings].  (p. 272-273)
Knowing little French, I ran Agassiz’s original passage on O. serratus through the translate function in Google and then massaged the results.  Though my results aren’t pretty, I think they’re serviceable.  So much for the translation problem?  Well, I may still have things wrong and Agassiz is being exclusively descriptive here, no concepts, no theories, just a few terms that a collector of fossil shark teeth is likely to recognize in more than one language.

(All the volumes of text and illustrations for Recherches sur les Poissons Fossiles are available at the Biodiversity Heritage Library.)

If this is indeed the root origin of the Serratolamna serrata (and I think it is), how did the name Otodus serratus “evolve” into S. serrata?  The key apparently rests with the scientific name for the genus – Serratolamna Landemaine 1991.

In 1991, the Société Amicale des Géologues Amateures (Society of Amateur Geologists?) of the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle, Paris, published a piece by O. Landemaine titled Selaciens Nouveaux du Cretace Superieur du Sud-Ouest de la France; Quelques Apports a la Systematique des Elasmobranches.  Roughly translated, the title in English is:  New Upper Cretaceous Selachians from the Southwest of France; Some Contributions to the Systematics of Elasmobranchs.  (The Elasmobranchii is a subclass of the Chondrichthyes (cartilaginous fish) which includes sharks.)

So, what does Landemaine have to say?  Wish I knew.  I have been unable to locate a copy.  Maybe not really a language barrier, but I usually have some hope of tracking down obscure publications in English, and little for those in other languages.  It would appear that Landemaine removed a number of species, including the one of interest, from the genus Cretolamna and “erected” Serratolamna for them.  This raises still another question, when and how did Otodus serratus move into Cretolamna?  His piece might tell me, but . . . .  [A much later edit:  O. Landemaine very kindly commented on this post, noting that his paper is now available on the web.  The link is here (click on the white arrow in the green button).  After I do some translating from the French, I'll see what he has to say on the subject.]

Having run into this dead end, I went back to Agassiz’s description of O. serratus and, on a whim, tracked down this Bronn character whose collection held the specimens illustrated in Recherches.  Sheer serendipity when it drew me deeper into the scientific translation maze.

Agassiz knew Heinrich Georg Bronn (1800 – 1862) well; in 1826, as a 19-year-old, Agassiz attended Bronn’s lectures on paleontology at the University of Heidelberg.  Bronn had been educated at the University and spent his career there, teaching natural history and zoology, among other subjects.  In time, he became “Germany’s most distinguished paleontologist, known for detailed fieldwork in Italy and throughout Western Europe, identifying and sequencing strata of sedimentary rock and the fossils they contained.”  (Sander Gliboff, H.G. Bronn and the History of Nature, Journal of the History of Biology, June 2007, p. 262.)  According to historian Edward Lurie, Bronn “took a personal interest in [the student Agassiz] and showed him how to study collections of fossils illustrating the history of the earth and its extinct species.”  (Louis Agassiz:  A Life in Science, p. 21.)

Agassiz also rose to prominence as a leading paleontologist in Europe and then emigrated to the United States in the late 1840s, where, in the ensuing decade, he reshaped American science and science education.  On a trip to Europe in the summer of 1859, Agassiz purchased Bronn’s fossil collection for Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology, from which he, in turn, taught students back in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  (Lurie, Louis Agassiz, p. 238.)

If Agassiz met with Bronn to complete the purchase, I’d love to have eavesdropped on that conversation (my little bit of searching has turned up no evidence they did).  Surely, Agassiz would have been charming, though he would likely have been convinced that he had long since eclipsed his old teacher.  I would guess that Agassiz knew of Bronn’s work of the 1840s and 1850s, work that constituted a powerful rebuttal to Agassiz’s theory of catastrophism (periodic catastrophes wiping out all species, followed by mass creation of new species with divine intervention under a divine plan).  According to science historian Sander Gliboff, Bronn “was most keen to refute” Agassiz.  (H.G. Bronn, p. 12.)

In his own theory, Bronn identified natural laws to explain the living world as he found it; the adaptation of species to their environment constituting a central one.  Change in the environment led to the extinction of species maladjusted to those changes.  The extinction occurred for individual species, not entire fauna.  In Bronn’s theory, species remained distinct, unrelated entities.  He remained agnostic as to how new species came into being.  In the preceding two decades, Bronn had made a break with the pre-Darwinian biology in Germany, rejecting in particular the constellation of ideas that argued that organic change was a matter of internally directed progress toward “perfect” forms or types.  (Although my descriptions of Bronn’s theorizing have relied on Gliboff’s work cited here, any inaccuracies in translating Gliboff’s text into my words are all mine.)

When, on November 24, 1859, Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species was published in England, the die was cast for both Agassiz and Bronn.  Agassiz would wage a campaign against Darwinian evolution for much of the remaining 14 years of his life, an effort that increasingly isolated him from the scientific community in America, and, indeed, seems to continue to cast a shadow today over his significant accomplishments in science.  (I presented my take on Agassiz and evolution in a previous post.)  For Bronn, The Origin of Species would also figure prominently in the remainder of his life (just three years) but in a markedly different way.  And translation would be at the heart of it.

Upon its publication, Darwin (1809 – 1882) sent copies of The Origin of Species to several German scientists, including Bronn.  Unexpectedly, Bronn’s responded quickly and enthusiastically, reviewing it in a journal he edited.  The question of translating the book into German emerged in their initial communications.  Bronn wanted to translate the book himself and after an exchange of several letters undertook the project.

Darwin’s ready agreement with this arrangement is a bit curious because he found German a struggle to understand and I’m not sure at what point he actually translated Bronn’s initial journal review of The Origin of Species in its entirety (if he did), but early on he had trouble with it.  Not only was Bronn’s German “confoundedly hard” as he wrote to Lyell on February 18, 1860, but what meaning he had managed to extract didn’t sit well, particularly Bronn’s choice of the phrase “wahl der lebensweise” as a translation of “natural selection.”  The German phrase can be translated back into English as roughly something like “choice of lifestyle,” hardly what Darwin had in mind and, as Darwin himself pointed out to Bronn, the German phrase carried Lamarckian connotations (in which characteristics acquired by a organism could be inherited by its offspring).  (Janet Browne, Charles Darwin:  The Power of Place, 2002, p. 142.)

Bronn’s translation of The Origin of Species appeared a few months later (how did he do it so quickly?), complete with an epilogue in which he critically analyzed the book (something that Darwin himself had suggested).  Darwin’s initial response to Bronn (April 10, 1860) after receiving the translation was short and, as usual, generous, beginning with the following:
I received this morning 4 Copies of the translation and I must trouble you with one line to say how much pleased I am with their appearance.
I have read some pages and my sense seems very clearly given; for poor German Scholar as I am, I could read it with some facility – . . . .
Well, I don’t believe Darwin actually read it with “some facility.”  He tried to wrestle his way through the translation, but with what success?  Historian Janet Browne describes Darwin coming to the task “[a]rmed with some heavy German dictionaries.”  (p. 141)  Bronn’s critical epilogue apparently befuddled him and so, this scientist at the summit of the English scientific community sought a translation of the epilogue from Camilla Ludwig . . .  the household’s new governess, who was German.  I also find it amusing and telling that, according to the Darwin Correspondence Project (see Notes at the end of this posting), of the single copy of Bronn’s translation that Darwin kept for himself, which came in three parts, the pages of parts two and three remained uncut, as did some of the pages of the first part!

Browne concludes that Darwin was dissatisfied with Bronn’s translation.  He “scarcely expected a translator, however eminent, to adjust the Origin’s argument to suit himself,” (p. 141) as he apparently felt Bronn had, and ultimately looked for a new translator.  Though it’s relatively easy to find evidence that Bronn’s translation troubled Darwin, he never broke his ties to the German paleontologist.  Indeed, Bronn translated the second and third editions of the book.

Gliboff identifies a number of inherent challenges in the translation process for getting author and translator – Darwin and Bronn – on the same page.  Differences between Darwin and Bronn that threatened a common understanding included training and scientific experiences, social and culture milieus, and even their understanding of the scientific enterprise.  (Gliboff, H.G. Bronn, p. 13-14.)

Whether or not Bronn came to the project intent on reinterpreting the original work, language was critical.  As translator he would have had to struggle with what the English words and phrases meant to their author, particularly if some of those words and phrases were being coined or used in new ways.  Further, he’d have to consider whether the specific examples given in the original to convey particular meanings would do the same in the other language (and for another society).  And so on.

There’s another aspect of language use that bedevils the translation process.  How the translator uses language and what he or she means by the words and phrases used.  Later scholars asserted that Bronn and other German translators of Darwin sought to tie Darwin’s evolutionary theory to Germany’s pre-Darwinian biology with its emphasis on progress toward “perfect” forms.  A clear misinterpretation, according to Gliboff, given how Bronn’s own thinking had changed in the preceding couple of decades.  What misled the critics was Bronn’s use of some of the same terminology as that of the German pre-Darwinians.  Such a maze.

Gliboff concludes with a nuanced assessment of Bronn’s work and other German translation efforts:
Darwin’s German interpreters, to some extent, made his theory their own and turned it to their own purposes.  But we must also beware of exaggerating the independence of the translation or interpretation from the original.  Much may have been lost or changed in translation, but much was also communicated successfully.  (H.G. Bronn, p. 13)
I came out of this convinced that translation of any text is part science and part art; translated works are at best approximations of the original, and sometimes other than that.  For a seminal scientific work such as The Origin of Species, the journey of the text from one language to another seems destined to generate something new, regardless of how much of the original is conveyed successfully.  Language barriers, for better or worse, are transformative.

And, yes, I do know the take in the Hitchhiker’s Guide on the impact of language barriers:
[T]he poor Babel fish, by effectively removing all barriers to communication between different races and cultures, has caused more and bloodier wars than anything in the history of creation.


1) All correspondence from and to Charles Darwin cited in this posting may be found in the wonderful Darwin Correspondence Project, http://www.darwinproject.ac.uk/entry2703, accessed on various dates in October, 2011.

2) I made the identification of the Serratolamna serrata teeth using two sources –Fossil Sharks of the Chesapeake Bay Region (1994) by Bretton W. Kent, and The Collector’s Guide to Fossil Sharks and Rays From the Cretaceous of Texas (1993) by Bruce J. Welton and Roger F. Farish.  Among the key distinguishing features of these teeth are (1) asymmetry in the number of cusplets on either shoulder of the root – a larger number on the distal part (toward the rear of the mouth – the central crown curves toward the rear), and (2) divergent curvature of the cusplets – distal ones pointing to the rear, mesial ones pointing to the front of the mouth.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Who’s Nathan Myhrvold and Why is He Saying Those Terrible Things about Paleontology?

Paleontology is ossified.
~ Nathan Myhrvold, Wired Magazine, October, 2011

I’ve been wresting for much too long with Nathan Myhrvold’s snarky quip about paleontology.  After an initial laugh, I reacted with hostility, particularly when he followed up that bit of word play by saying, “The methods [of paleontology] haven’t changed substantially in 100 years.”  I thought I understood the meaning of the comment and detected a nasty tone.  But, that’s hardly where I end up in this posting.  (So typical that, just after having written in my previous posting about the limits to my relationship with dinosaurs, I come back with one about those creatures.)

So, who is he and what’s he specifically complaining about?

It begins I suppose with renowned dinosaur paleontologist Jack Horner who wants to build a dinosaur from a chicken embryo, a chickenosaurus.  Horner, who was the first to find fossil baby dinosaurs in nests and fossil dinosaur embryos, believes the blueprint for a full-fledged dinosaur resides in the chicken genome given that he concludes, as do many scientists, that modern birds are not descended from dinosaurs but are, in fact, avian dinosaurs.  He’s written a book about this quest (How to Build a Dinosaur:  The New Science of Reverse Evolution, 1999).  Earlier this year he gave a funny and thought provoking talk about chickenosaurus at a TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) conference (this link is to the video of the talk).  Most recently, he is profiled in the October issue of Wired Magazine (Thomas Hayden, How to Hatch a Dinosaur).

Horner is aided and abetted in his effort to turn back the evolutionary clock by said Nathan Myhrvold.  I’ll admit it, I had no idea who Nathan Myhrvold was and whether his opinions about paleontology should carry any weight.

Is he a trained paleontologist?  No, though clearly he’s plenty smart.  Myhrvold finished high school at 14, earned a doctorate in theoretical and mathematical physics from Princeton, and did research with Stephen Hawking.  New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell described Myhrvold as “gregarious, enthusiastic, and nerdy on an epic scale.”  (In The Air:  Who Says Big Ideas are Rare?, The New Yorker, May 12, 2008).

He has done some paleontology work, appearing as co-author on several articles in peer-reviewed science journals.  In one, he and his co-author build a case based on the anatomical structure of diplodocid dinosaurs’ “enormous and graceful tails that taper to thin tips” and the physics of bullwhips to argue that these dinosaurs could have whipped their tails back and forth fast enough that the movement of the tips would have exceeded the sound barrier, creating a loud cracking sound.  This led the authors to counter the notion that the diplodocids’ long tails were used as contact weapons; instead, they suggested that these tails might have functioned as “noisemakers” perhaps for warding off predators or exerting social control within sauropod groups, among other possible uses.  (Myhrvold and Philip J. Currie, Supersonic Sauropods?  Tail Dynamics in the Diplodocids, Paleobiology, Autumn 1997).

When you look at the tail of a diplodocid, this hypothesis of a supersonic tail does not appear so far fetched.  These photos show the Diplodocus longus specimen on display in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History (and also breakup the textual onslaught of this posting).  It's hard to isolate a specific specimen in this display given how many dinosaurs are packed in here.  The white arrows in the first picture identify the Diplodocus and the black arrows in the second point to its long, snaky tail.

Not hard to see how Myhrvold’s academic training and research might have well served this particular research effort.

A more recent piece with Myhrvold as a coauthor appeared this February and reports the results of a decade-long effort mounting a systematic collection of dinosaur fossils from the Upper Cretaceous Hell Creek Formation in Montana, the so-called Hell Creek Project.  Jack Horner is the lead author of this piece.  (John R. Horner, Mark B. Goodwin, and Myhrvold, Dinosaur Census Reveals Abundant Tyrannosaurus and Rare Ontogenic Stages in the Upper Cretaceous Hell Creek Formation (Maastrichtian), Montana, USA, PLoS ONE, February 2011.)  Gladwell quotes Myhrvold on the project as saying, “Our expeditions have found more T. rex than anyone else in the world. . . .  From 1909 to 1999, the world found eighteen T. rex specimens.  From 1999 until now, we’ve found nine more. . . .  We have dominant T. rex market share.

This report on the Hell Creek Project suggests how Myhrvold’s entree into paleontology may have been facilitated just a little bit by the fact that he’s yet another example of nerdiness paying off handsomely in financial terms.  He served as chief technology officer at Microsoft where he established that company’s research division, and left Microsoft in the late 1990s a very rich man.  He then went on to co-found Intellectual Ventures, a patent investment firm now armed with a $5 billion war chest.  For its fans, IV is a Robin Hood righting the balance in the playing field that for too long has been tilted toward big corporations who run roughshod over little guys holding patents.  In the eyes of its critics, IV is patent trolling, scooping up patents and exacting large licensing fees from corporations with the threat of lawsuits; they call the firm Intellectual Vultures.  (Transcript:  Myhrvold of Intellectual Ventures, The Wall Street Journal, September 16, 2008; Steve Lohr, Turning Patents into ‘Invention Capital’, The New York Times, February 18, 2010.)

The PLoS ONE article identifies the several sources of funding for the Hell Creek Project, among which is Intellectual Ventures.  The description of  “competing interests” notes that Myhrvold “contributed financially to the Hell Creek Project and intellectually to the design of the study.”  Is it unusual for a funder of a scientific research project to be listed as an author on the report of the results from the research?  In some circumstances that would certainly raise a question about whether the funder steered the results to a desired outcome.  Though that’s highly unlikely to be the case with this project, I was struck by a contradictory statement in the description of funding that accompanies the article – “The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.”  Puzzling.

In a roundabout way I guess I’ve given Myhrvold’s bona fides.  His bone of contention with paleontology?  As he puts it,
Normally, paleontologists go out and walk around until they find fossils. . . .  But it turns out that there’s a place to look that’s just as good as the badlands of Montana, and that’s the genome of living creatures.  (How to Hatch a Dinosaur, Wired Magazine)
Ah, the pitting of paleontology against molecular biology.  I assumed at first that Myhrvold was alluding to the decades-long source of tension in the study and theorizing about evolution, the debate over the question of the completeness of the fossil record, and the squaring of the evolutionary history derived from that record with that embedded in genes.  As Derek Turner summarized it in Paleontology:  A Philosophical Introduction (2011, p. 199),
Each discipline has its own source of evidence – the fossil record vs. the genes and proteins of living creatures – and the issue is which of these sources of evidence can tell us more about the past.  The relative importance of paleontology as a contributor to evolutionary science is one of the things at stake in this debate, for paleontology’s disciplinary status and prestige have always been tied up with questions about the completeness of the fossil record.  Darwin dealt an early blow to paleontology when, in the Origin of Species, he lamented the incompleteness of the geological record.  Over a century later, [Stephen Jay] Gould and [Niles] Eldredge launched the paleobiological revolution by arguing that the fossil record is more complete than anyone had realized because the very gaps that Darwin complained about contain information.  Now, at the height of the paleobiological revolution, when paleontologists have become virtuosos at documenting patterns in the fossil record and assessing claims about evolutionary processes, molecular biology raises all the old worries:  What if the fossil record is so incomplete that it offers a radically misleading picture of evolutionary history?
For a similar take on this, see David Sepkoski’s essay titled Evolutionary Paleontology and the Fossil Record:  A Historical Introduction (From Evolution to Geobiology, The Paleontological Society, 2008).

But, actually (despite my quoting at length from Turner - it's just good stuff), I think Myhrvold’s complaint is less a critique of the collecting of fossils and the analyzing of the fossil record, and more to do simply with his enthusiasm about the exciting (terrifying to some) possibilities of reverse evolution from manipulating genes and creating . . . whatever.  Not hard to believe that about a man who could claim (facetiously or not), “We have dominant T. rex market share.”

I’m persuaded more fully to be generous in my interpretation of Myhrvold's witticism about paleontology by a piece he wrote in 1998 for Science advocating greater public funding for basic scientific research.  (Supporting Science, Science, October 1998.)  Applied research is all well and good, he stated, but one cannot “reduce knowledge to practice” without the basic knowledge acquired by basic research.  As a result, he asserted,
There is no useless research.  Many discoveries reach their full potential, given enough time.
I just love that first sentence.

But, you might ask, where would he place paleontology in the array of basic research efforts?  Right in the mix, it turns out.  He wrote,
My favorite example of unexpected utility is dinosaur paleontology.  What could be more useless than studying these extinct giants?  Recent work on the mysterious extinction of the dinosaurs has built a credible case that their demise was caused by the impact of an asteroid or comet.  Although this explanation remains controversial among experts in the field, the inquiry has sparked the realization that a future impact by a near-earth asteroid could kill millions of people, destroy civilization, or even drive our species to extinction.  Active research is now focused on this threat and on technological means to avoid it.  It is thus entirely possible that the “useless” study of dinosaurs might some day, decades or even centuries from now, lead to saving the human race.
Of course, this theory regarding the extinction of the dinosaurs is an example of an outsider – in this instance, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Luis W. Alvarez (from Myhrvold’s own academic discipline) – coming to paleontology and stirring things up.  (Perhaps I shouldn't let Myhrvold off the hook so fast.)

Finally, in his defense of paleontology research, Myhrvold pointedly added, “Meanwhile the entire cost of funding dinosaur paleontology, from its inception to the present, is less than the production cost of the film Jurassic Park.”

As much as I enjoyed the article about chickenosaurus in Wired, I wish I hadn’t reacted to Myhrvold’s ossification comment because I would have had much more time to do some other things . . . like react to another smart remark.

In a recent article about dinosaurs and other fossils in New Jersey (Elizabeth Kolbert, New Jerseysaurus, The New Yorker, October 10, 2011), paleontologist Neil Landman of the American Museum of Natural History offered up the one-liner that will get me out of doors this coming weekend.
I think it was the Duchess of Windsor who once said, You can’t be too rich or too thin or have too many Cretaceous fossils.

Friday, September 30, 2011

I Really Should Be Fascinated By Dinosaurs

In which the blogger confesses to being amazed, but not fascinated, by dinosaurs, describes two recent dinosaur fossil finds in Maryland, and identifies the most fascinating theme running through both stories.
I really should be fascinated (with all of that word's meaning of spell-casting) by dinosaurs and dinosaur fossils.  I know they are a common gateway drug to a paleontology addiction, though they weren't for me (I fell for fossil shark teeth).  The Natural History Museum of London’s The Book of Dinosaurs (2001) asks, regarding dinosaurs, “Why are they so fascinating?” and answers that the public’s fascination with dinosaurs probably arises because these terrestrial reptiles
seem so amazingly different from the animals we know – bus-sized plant-eaters, hunters with 20 centimetre-long serrated teeth, strange creatures with outlandish names.  (p. 7)

Photo above taken in Dinosaur Hall at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History.

Ironically, that quote captures one of the reasons that, though I am truly amazed by the creatures, I am not fascinated by them, having never been drawn to them, even as a child.  To me, dinosaurs were so fundamentally and dramatically unlike anything alive today that they were truly alien in their terrible otherness, to be considered with caution and not to be embraced lest they come to populate nightmares . . . or give rise to movie scenes such as the one in the movie Jurassic Park in which the Park’s lawyer, cowering on a toilet, is eaten by a T. rex (a scene ranked by some as among the best movie deaths of all time).

The basic theme of the Natural History Museum of London’s treatise – that dinosaurs were, in many essential ways, including social organization, feeding, movement, much like extant reptiles and mammals – might have made the creatures more appealing to me had that message had been known, accepted, and promoted years ago.

As a Marylander, living in a dinosaur hotspot, I really should be a dinosaur aficionado.  A recent article in Smithsonian Magazine asserts, “Today Maryland is one of the richest fossil-hunting sites east of the Mississippi.”  (Abby Callard, A Dinosaur Graveyard in the Smithsonian's Backyard, Smithsonian Magazine, February, 2010.)  And Prince George’s County, just down the road, is the destination for dinosaur fossils within Maryland.  Recognized dinosaur finds in this area date back to the mid-1800s with the discovery of a tooth from a huge herbivorous dinosaur that came to be named Astrodon johnstoni, now the Maryland state dinosaur.  A bit later, during the winter of 1887-8, fossil hunter John Bell Hatcher, at the behest of his teacher, Yale University’s O.C. Marsh (who vied with E.D. Cope in the “Dinosaur Wars”) searched for dinosaur fossils in Maryland and located
what would become the richest dinosaur fossil site ever found in the Lower Cretaceous of the East Coast – the Arundel Clay in the area between Beltsville and Muirkirk in Prince George's County. The outcrop belt of the Arundel Clay between Washington and Baltimore became known as "dinosaur alley."  (Maryland Geological Survey, Astrodon johnstoni: the Maryland State Dinosaur, FactSheet 12)
Last week, the local media bubbled with stories about two dinosaur fossils finds in Maryland.  Both fossils were discovered in Prince George’s County and both are now ensconced in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History.

The first of these stories recounts the scientific culmination of a process begun in 1997 when local amateur paleontologist and dinosaur fossil hunter Ray Stanford found a rock in a stream bed near his home in Prince George’s County.  Stanford initially believed he had found a dinosaur footprint, but, as he describes it, when he took it home
We put it up above the stove where the sun hit it and we got some unusual shadows. . . . And here I saw ribs sticking out. I took a brush and brushed it out. I said, “We’ve got a small dinosaur here.”
After some research on his own, he took the chunk of rock with its five inch-long imprinted pattern of shapes and designs to renowned dinosaur expert David Weishampel of the Center for Functional Anatomy and Evolution at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Medicine.  Stanford and Weishampel then collaborated on an article just published in the Journal of Paleontology formally identifying what Stanford found – a mixture of molds and casts of a 110 million year old dinosaur hatchling, a new species named by Stanford Propanoplosaurus marylandicus, one of the armored herbivorous nodosaurid dinosaurs, a family within the Ankylosauria group.  (Ray Stanford, et al., The First Hatchling Dinosaur Reported from the Eastern United States: Propanoplosaurus marylandicus (Dinosauria: Ankylosauria) from the Early Cretaceous of Maryland, U.S.A., Journal of Paleontology, September 2011, abstract; see also, Brian Vastag, College Park Resident Finds a Fossil First: a Hatchling Armored Dinosaur, Washington Post, September 13, 2011; Propanoplosaurus Marylandicus: A Win For Open (And Citizen) Science, Science 2.0, September 14, 2011)

Here’s the fossil as it is currently displayed at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History.

This fossil remains a puzzle to me, even with the explanation that it is the imprint of “a hatchling nodosaur on its back, much of its body imprinted along with the top of its skull" (Science 2.0).  I liken it to the Magic Eye 3-D images of the 1990s which could be seen only if you tried to look through the picture.  (For what it’s worth, Weishampel consulted with Steven Spielberg on Jurassic Park – don’t know whether he had any input in the T. rex toilet scene.)

The second find was made on September 10th at a small Cretaceous site called Dinosaur Park.  Situated in “dinosaur alley,” Dinosaur Park is owned and operated by Prince George’s County, offering the general public opportunities each month to do some collecting with all finds going to the Smithsonian.  The County pronounces Dinosaur Park, “one of the most important dinosaur sites east of the Mississippi River.”

Amateur paleontologist and local fossil hunter, David Hacker, discovered this fossil when he checked out Dinosaur Park one day to see what recent heavy rains might have exposed.  Here’s how he described the discovery in a video appearing on the Baltimore Sun’s website:
[I came to the park to] see what the rain from Tropical Storm Lee washed out.  And I was just about to leave when I noticed a small portion of a larger bone exposed on the ground.  What I didn’t do was I didn’t dig it out immediately because if I had I might have damaged it and had it fall apart, and it would have been less useful to science and harder to figure out what it is.
Smithsonian experts were called in and, when they carefully uncovered it, discovered the specimen was fractured into two pieces.  They jacketed the material and took it back to the Natural History Museum for preparation and conservation.  (Frank D. Roylance, Dinosaur Bone Found in Laurel, Baltimore Sun, September 21, 2011.)  The find, approximately 6 inches long, is pictured below following initial preparation at the Smithsonian.

So, what is this nondescript two-part hunk of stone?  It’s early yet.  “Dinosaur bone” seems to be the most definitive statement offered to this point, although Smithsonian fossil preparator Steve Jabo hazarded the opinion that it was a sauropod bone (Baltimore Sun video).

There we have it, the two most recent Maryland finds to garner attention.  I hate to admit it but these fossils haven’t done much to generate new interest on my part in dinosaurs.  Perhaps it’s the bizarre nature of the first one or the unremarkable appearance of the second.

Actually, though these finds may be of importance for research on dinosaurs, their true significance for me comes from the fact that citizen scientists made the finds and then worked with the professionals.  Now, that's really fascinating.

[Full disclosure:  I played with the title and first sentence of this posting after it initially went up.]
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